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Vatican Gives Formal Apology for Inaction During Holocaust

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post

The Roman Catholic Church formally apologized Monday for failing to take more decisive action in challenging the Nazi regime during World War II to stop the extermination of more than 6 million Jews.

But in a long-awaited document on the church's role in the Holocaust, the Vatican defended Pope Pius XII, who headed the church during the war, from accusations that he turned a blind eye to the systematic killing of Jews. Some critics say Pius was motivated by church religious prejudices dating from the death of Jesus Christ.

Pope John Paul II, in a preface to the landmark publication entitled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," expressed hope that the historic declaration of repentance by the Vatican about Catholic shortcomings in dealing with the Holocaust "will indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices."

First reactions from Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States were mixed.

More than any of his predecessors, John Paul has made reconciliation with the Jewish people a priority of his papacy. During his 20-year tenure as leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics, he has become the first pope to visit concentration camp sites and to preach in a synagogue. He pushed the Vatican to open diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993 and hopes to celebrate the millennium with leaders of Jewish and Islamic faiths in an extravaganza of monotheistic religions on Mount Sinai.

At a meeting in 1987 with Jewish leaders, the pope promised them the Vatican would publish the church's history in dealing with antisemitism and the genocide of European Jews. It was the first time Jewish representatives had held informal discussions with the pope, who insists Christians must overcome centuries of animosity and learn to regard Jews as their "older brothers."

"We deeply regret the errors and failure of those sons and daughters of the church," the Vatican paper said. "We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest."

Meir Lau, Israel's chief rabbi for Jews of European ancestry, said that he was thankful that "after two thousand years of hostility between the church and Jewish people, there is something new, a new atmosphere happening before our eyes." But he bluntly rejected the document's conclusions about Pope Pius XII.

"His silence cost us millions of lives," Lau said in Tel Aviv. "One whoŠ does nothing to avoid the bloodshed is like a partner to the mass murder of human beings. He didn't do it, but he didn't stop it."

"It falls quite short of what was hoped for," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "Unfortunately, it does not unequivocally take responsibility for the teachings of the church that created the atmosphere that ultimately led to the Holocaust, and to the participation of numerous Œbelieving' persons in that crime."

Robert S. Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, called the document a "step in the right direction for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations." However, he added, "it only begins to address many issues and questions concerning the role of the Catholic Church in the evolution of antisemitism throughout the ages and its culmination in the [Holocaust]. It tells the truth, but not the whole truth."

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, criticized the Vatican's failure to "impose moral culpability on some leading church authoritiesŠ who were either indifferent or in some cases actually complicit in the persecution of Jews."

The document praised the "wisdom of Pius XII's diplomacy" and cited his warning in a 1939 encyclical "against theories which denied the unity of the human race and against the deification of the state," which he feared could culminate in a terrible "hour of darkness."

The paper contends Jewish leaders supported the view that Pius helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. It cites the words of Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, who eulogized Pius upon his death in 1958 for raising his voice "when fearful martyrdom came to our people."

Vatican historians say Pius worked behind the scenes and did not take a more assertive attitude in denouncing Nazi transgressions because he feared it would have little helpful effect and would worsen conditions for Catholics as well as Jews, in both Germany and other countries occupied by Nazi forces of command.